um up the experience of standing on a mountain. What do you have?
There’s the exhilarating view. There’s the satisfaction of achievement—if you’ve climbed it! And if you have resorted to a cable car or some other motorized option, there could be a sigh of relief with an inner whisper: I’m glad I didn’t have to climb that!
On top of a mountain the air is typically a little thinner, but cleaner and often cooler. We revel in the quiet—mountaintops often are places of peace and serenity. The visitor may even notice a majestic eagle soaring on the currents. It’s like being on top of the world.
The four Gospels, taken together, tell us the story of a woman whom Jesus took from life’s lowland slums to a mountaintop experience. We learn about her character and motives through an incident recorded in all four narratives of Jesus’ life and
•Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9: A woman anoints Jesus’ head with a very expensive perfume;
•Luke 7:36-38: A woman who had lived a sinful life washed Jesus’ feet with tears and perfume;
•John 12:1-11: The woman is named Mary. She is the sister of Martha and Lazarus. John records Mary anointing the feet of Jesus with a costly ointment, and only John and Mark name the perfume as “nard” (KJV: “spikenard”).
Ellen White, like many modern scholars, focuses on these four Gospel accounts as a unit. She reflects upon the four versions in “The Feast at Simon’s House,” a chapter in her classic volume on the life of Jesus, The Desire of Ages.
There can be no doubt that the dinner at Simon’s house was a remarkable feast. Some of those attending were unambiguous examples of Jesus’ extraordinary ministry: the healed but formerly leprous Simon, the resurrected Lazarus, the forgiven and cleansed Mary.
All the Gospel accounts of the incident at the end of the meal underline Jesus’ appreciation of Mary’s generous act of devotion. Only Luke’s account, however, highlights the extent of the woman’s sinful past, while the other three Gospels emphasize the great value of the perfume.
Her act of generosity has become one of the most talked-about tales within the wider story of Jesus, in part because of the great cost of the nard perfume that she lavished on a former carpenter.
The nard with which Mary anointed Jesus was made from a Himalayan plant that grows at or above 11,000 feet. The perfume was an extract from the roots and stems and was stored in a flask, often as a form of currency—a year’s energy condensed into a single portable package.* This perfume had made a long journey from the heights of the Himalayas, across the countries that we know today as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel to a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
The Meaning of Her Kindness
Though criticized at the feast, Mary was showing by her deeply moving act that she had a deep understanding of the identity of Jesus.
Matthew and Mark tell us that she anointed His head: this is a ceremonial act befitting a monarch. And Jesus truly was her King and her Lord. For this woman of devotion, Jesus was not her king by heredity. She had selected Jesus from an array of available rulers, Caesars, governors, and tetrarchs! Jesus was her Sovereign by choice.
Luke and John tell us that she anointed His feet, a gesture that undoubtedly underscored how much she longed to serve Jesus. In an act rich with symbolism and contrition, she sought to serve her Servant. When no others could bring themselves to wash Jesus’ feet with the most inexpensive fluid—water—Mary quietly volunteered to wash them with the most expensive perfume, supplemented with her tears! More clearly than many others at the table, she understood that Jesus was about servanthood, and she wanted to follow His example in her life.
Jesus Himself told her critics that she had anointed His body for His burial (Matt. 26:12; Mark 14:8), and soon after this symbolic act, Jesus was crucified and buried. She had succeeded in anointing Him as her Savior. For Mary, Jesus truly was her Anointed One, her Messiah!
Peaks and Valleys
Because Jesus repeatedly forgave and restored her, Mary had been taken to the heights of the land as promised in Isaiah 58:14: “I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth” (KJV). This was certainly a long way from the slums of her previous life. Her past was gray and shadowy: the gloom of awfulness hung over it. She knew the smell of death, and from Luke’s account we learn that she likely knew the odor of immorality and
But now, thanks to Jesus, she had been liberated—elevated and elated. She had been swept far away from the torments of her past. She had seen new colors, smelled new smells, learned new joys! And from that mountaintop of salvation, she had returned with a souvenir—nard!
But you have to come back down the mountain sometime, and Mary’s peak was followed by a wrenching valley. The elation of salvation had given way to near despair—not the despair she had known while in the depths of sin, but the dimming of hope that often follows the death of someone we hold dear. Lazarus, the brother she adored, had fallen ill and died.
John’s Gospel movingly describes Mary falling at Jesus’ feet in Bethany, even as she blames Him for her brother’s death. In the dust and ashes of the Jericho Road, the mountaintop she had once been on seemed very far away. But while others might have been tempted to cast away their confidence, Mary clung to her flickering hope, even as she clung to the precious nard she intended to spend on Jesus. She didn’t throw her newfound faith away. She didn’t do the obvious thing and anoint Lazarus’s dead body with the gift she had saved for Jesus. When she walked through her own valley of the shadow, she didn’t conclude that there was no point to a friendship with Jesus.
The Gospels tell us that when some of Jesus’ other disciples got discouraged, they temporarily went back to their old trade of the nets and fishing. To her everlasting credit, Mary, in her discouragement, didn’t go back to her fishnet stockings.
The flame of faith still was alight, even in the depths of her grief. Confused and desperate, she still had the presence of mind to seek out comfort in the one place it can always be found. She went to Jesus! Mary grasped what so many have yet to learn: it’s better to be in the dust at Jesus’ feet than on any mountaintop without Him. Her grief, like everything else in her life, was ultimately transformed. She heard Jesus command: “Lazarus, come forth” (John 11:43, KJV), and she saw her brother emerge alive!
Her grief did a somersault and came up joy. Her despair was overwhelmed by a flood of grace and mercy. The valley of her fear and sorrow was exalted, and all the rough places were made plain.
Friends, isn’t the Bible, which contains this wonderful news, the best book ever? No wonder Revelation 14:6 says this everlasting gospel needs to go to all those who live on the earth—“to every nation, tribe, language and people”—so they can discover for themselves the joy Mary found in Jesus.
If you’ve ever been as joyful and as grateful as Mary was when Lazarus was raised, you know you can’t keep it to yourself. While Mary didn’t want to make a public spectacle of her devotion, she wanted Jesus to know what she thought of Him. She wasn’t intimidated that her family and townspeople and Jesus’ other followers would know of her love for her Redeemer.
She wanted the world to sense—to smell—the difference in her life. Before Jesus cleansed and restored her life, the odor of decay about her life was nearly suffocating. As with her brother, there was no mistaking the scent of death. Now, however, it was like perfume. She had received beauty for ashes!
Dealing With Critics
Just as John’s Gospel is the only account to name Mary as the woman with the gift of perfume, so his account of this incident is the only one to name a disciple who was also a guest at this party—Judas.
Judas had also been on the journey with Jesus, both literally and ﬁguratively. Judas had seen the sights and been a witness to several “mountaintop” experiences with the Master. He had enjoyed a privilege given to only a relatively small group of human beings—witnessing the incarnate Jesus doing ministry. In all probability, Judas even saw the resurrection of Lazarus.
But at Simon’s feast, he appeared to be preoccupied. Taking what he assumed was the moral high ground, he challenged both Jesus and Mary: “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:5). As would become painfully clear, Judas didn’t have a problem selling something or Someone of exceptional value. Most people have assets they consider too valuable to sell, but not Judas. Jesus could see the falsity behind this rebuke of Mary, and He moved quickly to protect Mary from this moralistic attack. Jesus tellingly reminded Judas that the poor are perpetual, but the disciples’ time with the incarnate Jesus is limited.
This story is both old and constantly being repeated among the followers of Jesus. Sometimes, when we are savoring our perfume experience with Jesus, we encounter those who fume about what we treasure. Men and women of devotion who seek Jesus today also need to be supported and encouraged rather than belittled and bullied.
When Mary came near to Jesus and discovered His capacity to die, she anointed Him! She literally poured gifts on Him. But when Judas became aware of Jesus’ approaching death, he sold Him, like an old, wornout beast that had served its purpose.With his 30 silver pieces clinking in his money bag, Judas tragically—and needlessly— joined the infamous list of “losers” recorded in Scripture.
A Lingering Fragrance
Just days after this incident at the feast, Jesus was bashed, humiliated, and spat upon. And anyone who has had the unpleasant experience of being spat upon knows that saliva carries an unfortunate scent. I wonder . . . if the scent of that perfume lingered a few days in the hair of Jesus.
I wonder . . . whether from His hair, if He caught the remnants of the scent of that majestic perfume. Perhaps in His moment of abandonment, the traces of that fragrance reminded Him of Mary, of her gratitude and her need of Him as her Savior. I like to believe that in His hour of agony when His disciples were disappearing, He could still smile inwardly and say, “Yes, there’s Mary . . . she’s on My side. She’s worth it!”
Mary’s perfumed gift to Jesus has proved more lasting than she could have ever known—timeless, in fact. A story approaching 2,000 years old has survived in a world where moths and rust take their toll. This simple but extraordinary story has made a journey farther than and beyond the Himalayas.
Though wrong in his criticism, Judas had been right about one thing: the
sum of money represented by the nard was huge. It was a year’s wages—but what an investment! The perfume from that one ﬂask has perfumed our planet and our lives for centuries.
I wonder . . . if there’s something today that we can do with our lives that will really make a difference and add the fragrance of Jesus to our world.
*Siegfried H. Horn, Seventhday Adventist Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1979), pp. 1063, 1064, under “Spikenard.”
Anthony Kent is an associte secretary of the ministerial association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and coordinates the continuing education for pastors and the International Preach Project that reaches out to clergy of all faiths on behalf of the Adventist Church.